“I grew up in the States, and I would never have thought of an Indian Miss America,” she said. “That’s why people are so excited, they’ve never seen this before.”
Gandhi said Davuluri’s choice to perform a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest struck a chord with other Indians. That, and the fact that Davuluri’s skin tone is a bit darker than what Indian culture often considers beautiful.
“I don’t see a lot of darker Indians in Bollywood, in movies, so that is something I noticed,” Gandhi said.
Many observed that Davuluri’s skin tone would be too dark for her to win a Miss India pageant — so it said something special about America when it chose her as an ideal beauty.
“The United States, at the end of the day, is a country that represents diversity and inclusion and a sort of coming together of the world in some of the most incredible ways,” said Mallika Dutt, founder of the human rights organization Breakthrough.
But Dutt also pointed out that Davuluri’s milestone landed in the middle of a heated national debate on immigration, national identity, and who is — or should be — an American. “So having an Indian-American win this very symbolic moment is challenging some very fundamental notions of American identity in a way they haven’t been challenged,” Dutt said.
That challenge was evident in a smattering of racist tweets in the wake of the pageant. “That’s an important angle to the story,” said Deepa Iyer, executive director of the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together.
“There are a number of narratives coming out,” she said. “One is, isn’t it something that someone who looks like her, who has her name, can win this pageant?”